HSE: What social partnership means to the Tories
On Friday the Government announced a number of new appointments to the board of the Health and Safety Executive. The DWP did not indicate who they were representing when they made the announcement but, after a request from Hazards magazine, the HSE confirmed that two of the new appointments and one of the reappointments were employee representatives. One of the new members is Kevin Rowan who was nominated by the TUC. The other is Susan Johnson. She is not from any trade union, she is not a health and safety activist or a safety representative, she was not nominated by any union body. In fact she is a former senior manager and businesswoman. Last year she retired down from her job as Chief Executive of the Durham and Darlington Fire and Rescue Service. Before that she was Chief Executive of Northern Business Forum, and an ex director of the food company Greggs.
These are excellent qualifications for an employer’s representative, but there is not anything in her past that remotely qualifies her to speak for workers, yet here she is sitting on the HSE board representing employee interests. How on earth could that happen?
The HSE board was set up under the Health and Safety at Work Act and there have always been three employee seats and three employer seats. Originally the board was called the Health and Safety Commission, but it was changed to the board of the HSE in 2008. What did not change was the way the board should be appointed. The Act is very clear. It states that the Secretary of State can only make appointments to those three seats after consulting “such organisations representing employees as he considers appropriate”. In the UK the only organisation that is normally recognised as representing employees is the TUC and the Government has always accepted that. However no consultation with the TUC took place.
What is even more bizarre is that the TUC was not given the opportunity to even suggest candidates for this seat because it was never advertised. There are three seats and only two were mentioned in the advert. One vacancy was because a person had stepped down and the second was because a current board member had reached the end of their first term. The third seat is currently held by Paul Kenny who was, until earlier this year, General Secretary of the GMB and who is stepping down this month, however that was not known at the time the posts were advertised last year. Because, at the time the posts were advertised, only two vacancies existed, the adverts only referred to two posts, so the TUC did not, and could not, make a nomination to the third post. Despite that they have made three appointments to these “employee” seats, including this retired employer.
Perhaps this should not surprise me as signs of the Government’s disregard for the process appeared a few years ago. For decades the TUC has nominated active trade unionists with an interest in health and safety for the employee seats, and almost always these people have been appointed. I was a member of the HSC/HSE board for nine years myself. Three years ago things changed when the Government did not appoint the TUC nomination, who was the eminently qualified General Secretary of the Fire Brigades Union, Matt Wrack. Instead they appointed a retired trade union official that had not been supported by a single trade union, and without consulting the TUC. Even then the Government thought that it was better placed to decide who represents working people that those organisations that actually represent workers.
Why is this happening? There are two reasons. The first is that the Tories do not understand how social partnership works, or if they do, they hold it in contempt. The principle of giving employers and unions an equal voice in the oversight of the HSE was enshrined in the Health and Safety at Work Act and came from the understanding that health and safety issues are best dealt with by those who know the workplace and the risks working together. If a decision has the support of both unions and employers than it is more likely to be seen as being a good thing in the workplace.
Now they want a “professional board” for the HSE. I am not sure exactly what that means, but from the appointments made over the past few years, it seems to suggest someone who is a retiree and/or consultant, often with other “non-executive” roles on the boards of other public bodies or companies. Susan Johnson for instance has also recently been appointed by the Government to the board of the Equality and Human Rights Commission. So I guess by “professional” they mean “compliant”. A board that will not challenge them on their deregulatory agenda and who will help them manage the 45% cut in Government funding over ten years.
The TUC on the other hand have always nominated people who are still at work. In fact the two current TUC nominees are stepping down from the board because they have just retired. The new TUC nominee on the board, Kevin Rowan, is still very much involved in the world of work being head of Organising at the TUC.
Of course it is not just on the HSE board where this is happening. Just last year the HSE abolished the body that gave advice on dangerous substances. This was a joint committee with union and employer representatives and it was very effective, but often gave the HSE advice that they did not want. It has now been replaced by a handpicked “scientific” committee with no union or employer voice. A wide range of other joint committees have also been abolished by the HSE. Outside the HSE, we have recently seen trade union nomination rights for seats on the board of the Gangmasters Licensing Authority abolished.
The move also has to be seen in the context of the wider ideological attack on trade unions, including in the field of health and safety, where the Government is doing all they can to undermine and silence us. They already attempted through the Trade Union Act, to reduce the time given to health and safety representatives in the public sector, even though this is a legal right and despite the irrefutable evidence that trade union health and safety representatives make workplaces much safer.
Appointing a retired employer to represent workers on the board of the HSE not only ignores the requirements of the Health and Safety at Work Act, it is a kick in the teeth for every worker in the country. However, regardless of these attacks on workers and their representatives, unions will continue to fight to ensure that workers can go home safely at the end of the day.